Jesus vs. Slavery: Tom Gilson Responds (2 of 3)

Jesus vs. Slavery: Tom Gilson Responds (2 of 3) September 29, 2020

Did Jesus make a clear anti-slavery statement? Christian apologist Tom Gilson insists that he did. In part 1, we got into Gilson’s rebuttal to my argument that Jesus didn’t say anything of note about slavery.

By the way, did I mention that Gilson has a new book out? He could talk about little else in his rebuttal, which made for a confused foundation. Let’s be clear: I’m interested only in the question of the morality of Jesus as evidenced by his stance on slavery.

We’ll continue with Gilson’s attacks to my argument.

A literal approach to the Bible?

Gilson said:

[Jesus’s morality] cuts the legs out from any possible motive for slavery. It takes a special kind of wooden fundamentalism to notice that [and] yet think Jesus failed to say anything about slavery.

I never said Jesus said nothing. Jesus did mention slavery but only in passing. He never criticized it. And from the standpoint of the twenty-first century West, that silence is deafening.

Jesus had no problem redefining Old Testament rules about murder, adultery, divorce, and more in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). If he cared about slavery, he could’ve changed its rules, too. Imagine this brief statement added to the list:

You have heard it said that you may own people as slaves for life. But I tell you, a person is not a beast that may be owned by another person. Nor are people Jew or Gentile such that one can own the other. All are equal in the eyes of the Lord.

Just in case it’s not obvious, that’s not in the Bible. It was my invention.

An imperfect person can figure this out, but this morality is apparently beyond Jesus.

“Barker’s and Seidensticker’s Silly Simile”

I end most posts with a quote that might be relevant to the topic of the post, or maybe I thought it funny or witty. My second post ended with a quote that had Gilson wrapped around the axle for a dozen paragraphs:

Asking, “If there is no god, what is the purpose of life?”
is like asking, “If there is no master, whose slave will I be?”
— Dan Barker

Gilson was clutching his pearls as he imagined Barker setting “god” and “slave-owning master” as equivalent. Gilson said, “Now, if there is a god for whom that’s true, I don’t believe in it either. It’s certainly not the God I believe in.”

Barker wasn’t referring to Yahweh (that is, God with a capital-G) but rather “god.” This wasn’t specific to Christianity. And doesn’t the Christian God assign a purpose? Christians celebrate this and even try to use this as a bragging point against atheists: they have an objective purpose, and those poor atheists don’t.

Explaining something so straightforward feels like explaining a joke, but since Gilson seemed confused, let me try. “God” and “slave master” in the aphorism are used as purpose-defining beings. You aren’t a slave, so don’t look to a master to define your purpose. You do that yourself.

And by the same logic, the lack of a god (or pope or pastor) to constrain you is freeing—you’re an adult, and you can ignore them and define your own purpose for your life.

Finally, given that Gilson got Dan Barker’s job title wrong (Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation), let me add a little color that I imagine was also lost on him. Barker’s quote echoes “No Gods, No Masters,” the slogan of a newsletter launched in 1914 by feminist Margaret Sanger. It is also the subtitle of Women Without Superstition by Annie Laurie Gaylor, the other co-president of the FFRF.

So no, not a “silly simile” but a thought-provoking comparison.

Let’s return to Gilson, horrified at any suggestion of equivalence between Yahweh and a slave master.

Our God is not like any slave-holder they’ve encountered.

Here’s what God World is like. Think of sleeping children who startle awake at a noise and wonder in terror if this is the Armageddon their parents have said is imminent. Or the children taught to hate the classmate with two mommies. Or parents who treat their sick children with prayer instead of medicine. Or Christians bullied on how to vote to keep Jesus from crying. Or gays driven to suicide after Christian bullying. Or Catholic bureaucrats who put the church’s reputation over the mental health of children and shuffle around pedophile priests. Or Jim Jones.

To this, I expect a cheerful, “Well, I also don’t believe in a god who would have anything to do with that!” This misses the point. These are the consequences of a god that some believe in, and they built that belief on your Bible. I agree that God is different in important ways from a slave master, but Christians are still chained by their beliefs.

I do get a bit perplexed when [skeptics] take question-begging approach like Seidensticker does, for example assuming that Jesus’ primary mission to seek and save the lost couldn’t possibly take precedence over stopping slavery.

I never assumed that. There are 85,000 words in the gospels, and no one is saying that that should be one long diatribe against slavery. I’m just asking for a couple of sentences making clear his rejection of the institution and what his followers should do about it. Not finding this, I conclude that Jesus isn’t the benevolent god Christianity claims.

And if you’re explaining why Jesus didn’t attack slavery, you’re just undercutting the central point of your argument. It doesn’t matter why he didn’t attack slavery; I’m simply pointing out that he didn’t.

Concluded in part 3.

If the Bible got the easiest moral question
that humanity has ever faced [slavery] wrong,
what are the odds that the Bible got something
as complicated as human sexuality wrong?
— Dan Savage

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Image from Zulmaury Saavedra (free-use license)
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